London, England, has suffered a series of terrorist attacks. Scotland Yard sends an undercover agent, Detective Sgt. Ted Spencer (John Loder, Now, Voyager), to the city to investigate. Spencer’s investigation leads him to a movie theater owned by a kind middle-aged man (Oscar Homolka, I Remember Mama) and his charming wife (Sylvia Sidney, Street Scene). Is the unassuming couple responsible for all the mayhem?
Reaction & Thoughts:
“What goes on after hours in that cinema of yours?”
Unabashedly cruel, devious and scary in equal doses, Sabotage (also known as The Woman Alone) is one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s bleakest movies. It also shows Hitchcock in total command of his craft.
The shower sequence in Psycho (1960) is often cited as one of Hitchcock’s starkest moments, but before Mama Bates rudely interrupted Marion Crane’s warm shower, Hitchcock had managed to leave audiences all shaken up — Sabotage contains at least two murder sequences that will linger in your mind long after the fade-out.
I don’t want to go into detail — I try my best to keep my reviews spoil-free — but suffice to say these two murder sequences are powerful precisely because you don’t expect them. Years later, Hitchcock regretted filming at least one of the murders, but I thought the admittedly cruel sequence was essential to the plot. Anyhow, Hitchcock demonstrates here how good he is at manipulating all filmmaking elements.
Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent (no relation to Hitchcock’s previous movie, Secret Agent), Sabotage deals with one of the director’s favorite motifs: the exploration of the extraordinary in the ordinary. If Psycho announced that anyone could be a serial killer, Sabotage suggested that terrorists could look like anybody else. The film’s scary premise works not only because Hitchcock is so good at this sort of thing, but also because the actors are completely believable.
Sylvia Sidney was a tragedienne par excellence. Her knack for projecting unbearable anguish is on full display here. Sidney’s transparency is hard to resist — she is terrific as a woman whose world is collapsing around her. Sidney apparently clashed with Hitchcock — she wasn’t enthused with the director’s modus operandi. The behind-the-scenes conflicts don’t show up on the screen, though.
Oscar Homolka took over the role of the husband after Peter Lorre’s (The Man Who Knew Too Much) drug diction made it impossible for him to play the part. Homolka is one of Hitchcock’s creepiest characters. He looks like an average man, so his cruelty comes as a big shock. John Loder is the weakest link here — first choice Robert Donat (The 39 Steps) wasn’t available — but I liked him well enough.
As expected, Hitchcock uses his actors in diabolically clever ways. He wants you to connect with the characters so when the big blast comes you are as dumbfounded as the movie’s characters. In addition, Hitchcock uses the film’s main setting, a movie theater, to make a commentary on the power of movies and the people who make them. Hitchcock suggests that he’s cruelly toying with our emotions just like the film’s terrorist. This self-deprecating attitude is unexpected and interesting.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Sabotage proved unfortunately prophetic. The rise of domestic terrorism makes the movie more topical now than ever before. Hitchcock reminds us that no one is safe — the next-door neighbor could be a brutal terrorist. Although Hitchcock was very vocal about his dissatisfaction with the movie, Sabotage is now considered one of the filmmaker’s strongest British movies. I have to agree with those viewers who think this is among the director’s best early films. B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.